The Last Five Years At Southwark Playhouse

Three cheers for live theatre – and especially a musical – back at Southwark Theatre in spite of all Covid related restrictions!

Reception at the theatre was well organised and seating pared down by removal of a row to allow for social distancing, together with Perspex dividers between seats of different parties (one bonus being unusually generous leg room). A very different experience from the audience point of view but one which was no impairment to enjoyment of what proved to be an outstanding production.

Apparently inspired by his own failed marriage, this revival of Jason Robert Brown’s 2001 musical plots the relationship between aspiring novelist Jamie Wellerstein and struggling actress Cathy Hiatt. Told from their individual perspectives, we follow Cathy’s story in reverse chronological order from the end of the marriage and Jamie’s story in chronological order from their first meeting. There is therefore no mystery about what happened – the story is really about why.

The challenge for any director is as much about establishing the extent to which the protagonists are part of each other’s lives when the structure requires that they are emotionally distanced at an extreme at the beginning and end of the show. The key in this production was very much in the close collaboration of the production team. Lee Newby’s set design placed a grand piano at the centre of a revolving stage, with four chairs at the corners of a square space and audience on three sides. This allowed for considerable movement in a piece that otherwise risks becoming dangerously static through delivery of nine solos, duets appearing only halfway through and at the show’s conclusion. Characters frequently played the piano or apparently duetted – even if their individual contributions were sometimes as perfunctory as the state of their individual roles in the relationship at the time, each underscoring for the other’s vocal delivery. In keeping with the clear delineation of character development, costumes were black or white, complementing the shiny black piano and revolving stage, while the lopsided L5Y logo shone from the gallery which partly concealed the four piece band, supplemented by on stage performance.

The contribution of George Dyer’s musical direction cannot be understated. The combination of piano, keyboards, violin, guitar and cello provided an unusually rich support for the drama unfolding below, flexible enough for the wide range of musical styles required.  (Particular credit should go to sound design and engineering for providing an excellent balance between stage and gallery.) However orchestration was also an integral part of the drama, from the Cathy’s hammering the apparent death knell of her marriage on a tubular bell to her unexpected accompaniment with a ukulele. Songs were often presented as if a composition progress, the writing of which represented by papers on the piano lid. Similarly, Sam Spencer-Laine’s choreography was sewn into the dramatic and musical tapestry so that the entire action flowed as if in multiple threads which gradually revealed the whole picture.

Regardless of the undoubted strengths of a creative team of over thirty, the overall success of The Last Five Years depends on the quality of its two performers. Molly Lynch and Oli Higginson were, in a word, outstanding. They were entirely believable both as individuals who might have been attracted to each other as well as revealing the flaws in their characters which might have resulted in the ultimate breakdown in their relationship. In “Still Hurting”, the character of Cathy has something of an advantage in establishing audience sympathy in her identification of the numerous ways husband Jamie is incapable of viewing situations from any perspective other than his own. In less skilled hands, this could come across as, not unnaturally, very bitter. However this was more of an expression of frustration and sadness by Lynch – significantly more engaging of audience sympathy than anger. In turn this leaves the actor presenting Jamie with something of a problem in that it is difficult to like anyone apparently so self-centred. Oli Higginson nonetheless established a degree of audience sympathy at least at the beginning in the expression of his hopes and ambitions. However there is no disguising his rebellious streak in “Shiksa Goddess” which gives a big clue in his delight at non-conformism. With two voices of power and sensitivity, together with not a little talent at the keyboard completely integrated with their performances, Higginson and Lynch owned the stage. In their different ways, they shared the very human capacity for self-delusion and capacity to project this on others. At the same time, it has to be said that no amount of charm on the part of Higginson could overcome the essential duplicity of his character as  “Nobody Needs To Know” his betrayal of his wife, in spite of his previous protestations in “If I Didn’t Believe in You.” Higginson & Lynch took the audience on a musical journey through a wide range of musical genres, shining individually and together, leading all the way through to the emotional climax of “Goodbye Until Tomorrow/I Could Never Rescue You” and the sadness of a failed relationship that begs the question as to whether it was an entirely inevitable.

By Robin Kelly

The Last Five Years is playing a The Southwark Playhouse until 14th November. Tickets can be purchased on the theatres website here.

If you like this review you might also like my review for Jesus Christ Superstar at Regents Park Open Air Theatre and Pippin at The Garden Theatre.

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